In the C-Suite with Gareth Hedges
The Redwoods Group’s Chief Claims Officer explains how he literally swam to success, and why his company practices “disorientation.”
By Taylor Smith
How did you come to be in insurance?
It’s actually my love of lifeguarding that led to my claims career, which is probably unique. I received my lifeguard certificate at a local YMCA when I was 15. I was on the swim and dive teams and was pretty much a water rat. I guarded at Georgia Tech almost the entire time I was there.
When I graduated college, I was introduced to the Redwoods Group. Redwoods is a specialty provider of insurance for child-serving nonprofits such as YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, and resident camps, all of which have significant water-based risks. Redwoods is a certified B Corporation with a mission to use insurance as a powerful force for positive social change. That mission includes preventing drowning deaths, so my expertise in guarding and water safety was a great match.
My first few years with Redwoods were spent traveling the country, getting in the pool, videotaping lifeguarding activities, pretending to drown, testing guard response, developing training, and, in general, improving aquatic safety across our insured base. I think one of my first titles was “aquatic safety specialist,” which I quickly realized didn’t lend itself to the best acronym.
Tell me about aquatic safety in general.
Many people may not know what a science aquatic safety has become. Scanning effectiveness, proper guard positioning, inattentional blindness, attention span management, the ability to spot movement and lack of movement, surface and below-surface shape recognition, swimmer and non-swimmer color-coded identification, and rigorous drills—including the use of trained “drowning victims”—are now all key elements of current aquatic safety focus.
There even are new drowning detection technologies that are emerging, which is very exciting. It includes camera-based, computer-aided technologies and also wearable technologies that are linked to base stations, and they sound alarms when certain conditions are met. Historically, the YMCA as a whole experienced 12-15 drownings per year. It’s a tribute to the science of guarding that the number has been reduced to less than one per year now. We all want it to be zero.
How did you move from this area of focus to being the organization’s chief claims officer?
I was interested in the claims and legal side early on, since I could see the devastating effects of what happens when a drowning death occurs. I was fortunate to be supported by Redwoods and went to law school full time to earn my juris doctor and become our associate general counsel. Ultimately, I went on be our general counsel before transitioning to my current role as chief claims officer.
What philosophy have you instilled across your claims department?
Our claims department has two primary roles. First, it’s to help people heal after a loss. That is paramount. Second, it’s to use our claims data to change behavior to make people safer.
The first thing we look for is empathetic, compassionate people who know how to listen. As a mission and values-based organization, our focus is to address people’s immediate needs as quickly as possible. We need claims professionals who can put themselves in others’ shoes.
We can teach core claims skills, such as coverage and liability determinations, but teaching core compassion and empathy is much more difficult. We hire a lot of people who are not from the insurance industry, and we refer to our training as “disorientation” because we want people to start fresh. Those who come to us from other claims organizations may not be comfortable saying, “I’m sorry this has happened.” We believe in complete transparency and openness, so that skill is important.
At the heart of what we’re doing is treating people how we would like to be treated. We have found that most people want to do that, and we give our claims professionals the permission to behave that way.